Bitten brothers keep cousin’s legacy alive

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

“Keep his legacy alive.”

Who was Martin Piché?

Well, he was an engineering student in Montreal. Smart. Passionate. Motivated. He also was the cousin of Springfield Thunderbirds forwards Will and Sam Bitten.

But at 25 years old, Piché was diagnosed with cancer. Brain cancer. He passed away on Jan. 8, 2021, at age 31.

The disease denied him plenty in life, but he had hockey, and he had his cousins. As the Bittens made their way through the Ontario Hockey League and on to pro hockey, they had one of their most dedicated fans in Piché.

So consider their cousin’s legacy to be very much alive, thanks to Will, Sam and Bitsy’s Army.

And part of keeping that legacy alive means raising money for this fight against brain cancer.

The Bittens, along with the rest of their Thunderbirds teammates, will don special warm-up jerseys when the team hosts its annual Hockey Fights Cancer night this Saturday against Utica. Joining them at MassMutual Center will be more than 20 members of their immediate and extended family.

“It’s a special night for everyone,” Will said. “We’re really looking forward to it. It should be a great night for everyone, my teammates, the fans.”

Added Sam, “Everyone’s been affected by cancer, so to have this night, and especially dedicated to Bitsy’s Army, it’s very special.”

Last season Will and the Thunderbirds wore lavender warm-up jerseys that they later auctioned off to raise money for charity. The club also worked with Will to design a Bitsy’s Army logo and a line of related merchandise. The T-Birds Charitable Foundation then used money raised from those merchandise sales to make a donation to the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada.

The Bitten contingent in Springfield doubled when the Thunderbirds brought 23-year-old Sam aboard on an AHL deal this past summer.

Hockey has created a lot of family memories. Now 25, Will thinks back to the day in Buffalo in 2016 when he was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. The Bittens and Pichés had made the trip. A huge cheer went up when that pick went up on the draft board.

“It was so loud,” Will recalls. “I remember everyone looking and even the Montreal [draft] table staring at us.”

Martin Piché was in the crowd as well.

“Having him there and his family, that’s pretty special,” Will remembers. “It felt like it was meant to be.”

Seeing him go to the storied Canadiens was a “dream come true” for both the families. And for Will, it meant building an even deeper bond with his cousin. The Bittens grew up in the Ottawa area. But after being drafted, Will spent two summers living with the Piché family while he trained in the Montreal area. Whether it was a time on the ice, an afternoon spent on the golf course, or a leisurely evening meal together, Will grew closer with Martin, who was nearly a decade older than him.

Bitsy’s Army was launched in 2020, when Sam was with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and Will was playing with the Iowa Wild. Now in his third season in Springfield, Will quickly became a key part of the community and has worked with the Thunderbirds’ front office on several cancer charity initiatives. Those efforts helped to make him the team’s winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his local community work last season.

“They’ve been top-notch,” Will said of the Thunderbirds organization. “Without them, this night would never happen. We really appreciate it. I can’t thank them enough to help with this cause.”

Piché left a legacy with his two cousins hockey-wise as well. Pro athletes are human. There are those summer days where the aches and pains make offseason training difficult. But the gym or the rink still beckon. Until the Bittens think back and look at Piché as an example. During those summer days in Montreal, Will remembers seeing Piché swim laps each morning. Even in his final year of life, as he began to lose his eyesight and balance, Piché made staying fit a goal as much as possible.

“I use that a lot as fuel and motivation,” Sam explained. “I think about it every day. He fought his battle for seven years. The last year or so was really tough on Martin. It lit a fire in my belly.

“Holy smokes. If he’s able to do that, we’re like, ‘Let’s go. This is nothing [like] what he was going through.’”

Piché’s lessons extended beyond hockey as well. On that day in 2014 when Piché’s diagnosis came, Will was still a 15-year-old preparing to head off to play for the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers. Sam was only 13. They had to process this news somehow. And those lessons did not become any easier as time passed, either.

Sam recalls visiting Piché near the end and was struck by his cousin’s positive outlook. Speaking had become difficult for Piché by then, but he made it a point to talk hockey with the brothers. He pushed them to pursue their pro hockey ambitions.

“Even when he could barely speak,” Sam said, “he was telling us to go for our dream. He was stuck in his bed. That’s a sight I always have in my memory, seeing him in his bed. I can’t imagine going through that.

“What a warrior he was. We’re not going to quit after that.”